Slithering within an entanglement of colourful and aggressive forms, human bodies struggle, collide, appear and disappear on canvas. Recalling scenes from Dante Alighieri’s vivid depictions of hell in his epic 13th poem The Divine Comedy, these beings, as in the darkest circles of Dante’s Hell, seemingly cannot escape their fate. The individuals in Iranian artist Ramtin Zad’s work are similarly entrapped and slung throughout scenes with determined force. Such exasperated movement references all things negative – human vices, pain and torture. And yet, albeit the often times gruesome and surreal turmoil found through the vibrant brushstrokes and often harsh and jagged lines, there is light in Zad’s work. As there is for Dante who leaves Hell to ascend to Purgatory and then on to Paradise, there is resurrection for Zad’s underworld of chaos and despair.
Violent, sinister and a bit mad, transformed humans and animals prance around the artist’s splotchy canvases filled with thick smears of highly contrasting bright and dark coloured slabs of paint. Also reminiscent of the imagination and disorder found in 15th century Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch’s fantastical scenes of religious concepts and narratives, Zad paints a bleak view of reality in order to reconcile with the pain and hope for salvation. At the same time, the part-human and part- animal-figures which inhabit Zad’s oeuvre prompt us to peer a little more closely. And as we do, we grasp that what we see at first is not always what is, really there.
Resurrection, the title of Zad’s most recent solo show, features a selection of the artist’s fantastical works in which he transforms the unfortunate events of the outside world into his own dreamy and surreal landscapes. Despite their sadistic qualities, there is an evident cycle within these works: they depict the sad reality of horrific events while also presenting the possibility of the judgment of one’s fate. The idea of resurrection within these works is therefore a form of escape from the grim and brutal reality of their subject matter.
Highly animated with exaggerated expressions, the subjects of Zad’s work are drawn largely from Persian literature, folklore and miniatures presenting at once a fusion of reality and the subconscious. Zad guides us into a serendipitous encounter with our own reality; things may look one way on the surface, when in actual fact the human motifs, thoughts and feelings are much different. The artist thus leaves visual clues within his oeuvre in order for us to decipher the meaning for ourselves.
There is a strong presence of animals in Zad’s oeuvre. Consistently juxtaposed with human beings, they are at times even surrealistically merged through body parts and animal features. He paints dogs, smiling tigers, birds, fish, snakes, monkeys, swans and elephants among other creatures. Such a fusion of animal and human characteristics carries with it a notion of delusion; we are not sure of what we see when we look at Zad’s oeuvre. And the artist seems to want it to be this way. His figures allegedly point to an element of returning in time – perhaps when humans were not yet around and when animals reined the earth. For this, Zad seems to continually place the two creatures, man and animal, at constant odds with each other, battling yet also making amends for what the other is or should be.
Zad similarly incorporates women within his oeuvre, who are often found with distinct masculine qualities and seen, for example, playing backgammon, fighting with swords or participating in traditional celebrations. At times they are also found battling lions while at others, lying on the ground wounded and bleeding. In Little Red Riding Hood the innocent fictional character is replaced by three heads and a tail draped with one red cape – as if the big bad wolf had already come and swallowed Little Red Riding Hood up.
And while the animated subjects in Zad’s work leads us to think of a vivid and gruesome narrative, the artist denies that his paintings are based on any specific story. Much like his creative process, Zad’s work is never planned.
He works spontaneously without even deciding on the colours beforehand; the subjects come to him during the act of painting. Yet regardless of their subconscious and serendipitous creation, each character within Zad’s oeuvre is inspired by the people and situations he encounters in his daily life. For example, he particularly enjoys playing backgammon, a game depicted in many of his paintings. Yet even this representation of a real life event from Zad’s present is altered: some of the figures throwing the dice are portrayed as warriors found holding sharp swords. In Defense Minister from the Resurrection series, a nude man with elongated ears is draped over the animal’s back and gripping onto what appears to be a large bear that, in turn stands over a seemingly small white dog. In the background expressive splashes of paint constitute large flowers in shrubs in yet another depiction of the wild and untamed energy of nature.
In sculptural works such as Kabuki and Bazaar (Kabuki), Zad merges his sinister and animated subjects to make reference to the Japanese theatre movement of Kabuki. Depicting a classical Japanese dance drama known for the stylization of its drama and for the elaborate make-up worn by many of its performers, Kabuki prints are handmade and constitute an important source for showing social life, historical events, moral conflicts and love relationships of a certain place. Consequently, there are a number of symbols and allegorical elements within the genre which refer to the ritualised aspects of everyday life. The works stem from the artist’s interest in the social and political side of Japanese prints and performance and their resemblance to the current social circumstances in Iran. Zad’s creations exchange the traditional ceramic medium of Japanese pottery for fiberglass which he finds easier to paint on. The surface of both works is covered with the artist’s heavy impasto which lays down a multitude of colours. On the top of the work are three joined heads with their tongues sticking out in the artist’s typical sadistic visual mockery.
In Jungle, a large 2011 acrylic on canvas work of an ambiguous jungle setting, the energy of a disordered nature is depicted through the use of thick brushstrokes, drips and splattering of colour. The deliberate expressionistic application of paint serves to constitute the wild and untamed reality of the natural flowers and shrubs which explode on the canvas. At the same time Zad has rendered a few courgettes within the work exuding a formal and slightly erotic slant to the painting. In the background a clear blue sky seemingly represents the serenity and order individuals constantly try and impose upon the unknown forces of nature.
Also brimming with chaotic movement and scattered subjects, Zad’s 2011 work Beard and Tree paints a lucid and otherworldly landscape in the artist’s signature style. Here the body of a man is used to form the root of a tree while two large trees take on imposing stances and branch out to form the man’s beard through their leaves. The artist once again merges human bodies with the natural world to further highlight the expressionism of his paintbrush. And the onlooker, still bewildered by the scene presented, reconciles with the chaos only after they have come their own conclusion of the depiction before them.
While the sinister fantasy world which Zad conjures up relies heavily on his own unconscious realm, the scope of his oeuvre is undeniably larger: it is symptomatic of one’s self shaped by the constantly changing nature of society. And even as gruesome and sadistic characters writhe on his canvases, they fight for a cause. To get out of this labyrinth of cruelty and destruction one must be saved. There needs to be a resurrection to the madness and this is what the artist has portrayed.
Rebecca Anne Proctor currently writes for Canvas Magazine. She has an M. Litt in Modern and Contemporary Art History from Christie’s Education in London where she completed a dissertation on Afro- Cuban Religious Influences in Post Revolutionary Cuban Art: Redefining National Identity, and a dual-degree MA in International Relations and Middle Eastern Studies from the American University of Paris and the Institut Catholique de Paris. She previously worked for the Gagosian Gallery in London and the Barakat Gallery in Abu Dhabi and has contributed to various publications including Shawati’, Mojeh, Luxos, Vision, Art Observed and Haute Living.